When Payton Jordan first saw Louie again, he was reassured by his old friend’s familiar impish grin and the springy cadence of his speech. But when Louie spoke of the war, Jordan sensed something rustling just behind his eyes, a clamoring emotion pent up in a small space. He spoke not with anger or anguish but with bewilderment. Sometimes he’d pause and drift off, a troubled expression on his face. “It was like he got hit real hard,” Jordan recalled, “and he was trying to shake it off.”

Louie was struggling more than Jordan or anyone else knew. He was beginning to suffer bouts of suffocating anxiety. Each time he was asked to stand before a crowd and shape words around his private horror, his gut would wring. Every night, in his dreams, an apparition would form in his head and burn there. It was the face of the Bird, screaming, “Next! Next! Next!”

Very early one morning, Louie tiptoed from his room without telling anyone where he was going, slid into his Plymouth, put his foot on the gas, and didn’t stop until he was high in the mountains. He spent the day walking among the trees, thinking of his dead friends and his own survival, drawing from the wilderness the peace that it had given him since his boyhood summer on the Cahuilla reservation. The moment he nosed the car back in the driveway, the whirling began again.

Shortly after returning home, Louie found himself sitting in the audience at a gala held by the Los Angeles Times, which was giving him an award. Louie forked through his dinner, waiting for his name to be announced, apprehensive over having to relive his ordeal before all these people. Drinks were set before him, and he sipped them and felt his nerves unwinding. By the time he rose to speak, he was in a haze, and he rambled on for much too long. When he got back to his seat, he felt relieved. The alcohol had brought him a pleasant numbness.

One day not long after, as he sat at breakfast and fretted over the prospect of another speech, he broke out a bottle of Canadian Club whiskey and poured a shot into his coffee. That gave him a warm feeling, so he had another shot. It couldn’t hurt to have a third. The whiskey floated him through that speech, too, and so began a routine. A flask became his constant companion, making furtive appearances in parking lots and corridors outside speaking halls. When the harsh push of memory ran through Louie, reaching for his flask became as easy as slapping a swatter on a fly.


One afternoon in the middle of March 1946, Louie was at a bar at the Deauville Club in Miami Beach, chatting up a stewardess. He had just completed the latest of many surreal liberation experiences, traveling to New York to fire the starting gun for Madison Square Garden’s Zamperini Invitational Mile, the race conceived to honor him when almost everyone thought he was dead. After the race, he’d come to Miami Beach for the two weeks of R&R awarded to returning servicemen. A USC classmate, Harry Read, had accompanied him.

Across the room, a door opened. Louie glanced up. Flitting into the club was an arrestingly beautiful young woman, her hair a tumble of blondness, her body as quick and gracile as a deer’s. Those who knew her spoke of a shimmer about her, an incandescence. Louie drank in one long look and, he later told Sylvia, had the astounding thought that he had to marry this girl.

The next day, Louie and Harry returned to the club, vaulted the fence surrounding its private beach, and spread their towels near a pair of sunbathing women. When one of the women turned, Louie saw that it was the beauty from the bar. He was hesitant to speak to her, afraid that he’d come off as a wolf, but Harry charged right in, regaling the women with Louie’s history. When Harry mentioned the 1938 NCAA Championships, when rival runners had spiked Louie’s legs, the pretty woman stopped him. She said that when she was twelve, her mother had taken her to a theater to see Errol Flynn in Robin Hood, and there she’d watched a newsreel showing the NCAA mile winner and his bandaged legs. The sight had stuck in her mind.

Her name was Cynthia Applewhite, and she was a few weeks past her twentieth birthday. Louie spoke with her for a while, and the two discovered that they had geography in common; as a child, she had lived near Torrance. She seemed to like him, and he thought her bright and lively and so beautiful. When they parted, Louie grumbled something about how she probably wouldn’t want to see him again. “Maybe,” she said playfully, “I want to see you again.”

Louie wasn’t the first guy to be felled by Cynthia. Dense forests of men had gone down at the sight of her. She was dating two guys at once, both named Mac, and each Mac was trying to outlast the other. Since the Macs had Cynthia booked for every evening, Louie asked her for a daytime date, to go fishing. Showing up in blue jeans rolled up to the knee, she took up a fishing pole, smiled gaily for photographs, and braved seasickness with cheer. When Louie asked if he could take her out again, she said yes.

Cynthia Applewhite, on the day after Louie met her. Courtesy of Louis Zamperini

They seemed an unlikely pair. Cynthia was wealthy and pedigreed; she’d been educated in private schools, then an elite finishing academy. But for all of her polishing, she was not a buttoned-up girl. A friend would remember her as “different”—passionate and impulsive. At thirteen, when her family lived in New York State, she developed such a fever for Laurence Olivier that, unbeknownst to her parents, she hopped a train to Manhattan to see him in Wuthering Heights. At sixteen, she was drinking gin. She dressed in bohemian clothes, penned novels, painted, and yearned to roam forgotten corners of the world. She was habitually defiant and fearless, and when she felt controlled, as she often did, she could be irresistibly willful. Mostly, she was bored silly by the vanilla sort of boys who trailed her around, and by the stodgy set in Miami Beach.

Along came Louie. Here was someone exotic, someone who answered her yearning for adventure, understood her fiercely independent personality, and was from nowhere near Miami Beach. She was impressed with this older man, introducing him with his full name, as if he were a dignitary. On one of their first dates, he raced her through his hotel, snatching up toilet paper rolls and streaming them down the side of the building, earning the hotel manager’s wrath and Cynthia’s exhilaration. She gave up the Macs, and she and Louie swept around Miami.

At the end of March, just before he was to leave for his speaking tour, Louie led Cynthia onto a beach and confessed that he was in love with her. Cynthia replied that she thought she loved him but wasn’t sure. Louie was undiscouraged. Before their walk was done, he had talked her into marrying him. They had known each other for less than two weeks.

After Louie left, Cynthia broke the news to her parents. The Applewhites were alarmed that their daughter was flinging herself into marriage with a twenty-nine-year-old soldier whom she’d known for just days. Cynthia couldn’t be swayed, so Mrs. Applewhite refused to give her money to fly to California to get married. Cynthia vowed to get the money somehow, either by borrowing it or, in defiance of her mother, getting a job.

Louie wrote to Cynthia almost every day, and every morning at ten-thirty, he sat waiting for the mailman to bring him a pink envelope from Cynthia. Though the letters were adoring on both sides, they reveal how little the two knew about each other. Cynthia had no idea that Louie was losing his emotional equilibrium. From Harry, she knew a little about his time as a POW, but Louie had said almost nothing. In his letters, the closest he came to addressing it was to joke that he hoped that she’d go easy on rice and barley in her cooking. On one of their dates, Louie had gotten very drunk, but he had apologized and curbed himself from then on. Louie’s drinking may have struck Cynthia as harmless, but it was in fact a growing problem. In critical ways, she was engaged to a stranger.

Louie seemed to be aware that in marrying her, he was asking more of her than she knew, and he frequently warned her of how much she was taking on. Still, he wanted a wedding as soon as possible. “We have got to set a date early in June,” he wrote in mid-April, “or I’ll just go plain crazy.” Soon after, he wrote that they had to marry in May. She told him that she’d help him forget his past, and he grasped her promise as a lifeline. “If you love me enough,” he wrote back, “I’ll have to forget it. How much can you love?”


As Cynthia worked on her parents, Louie went into wedding overdrive. He tracked down reception sites, invitations, a caterer, and a jeweler. He found the Church of Our Savior, which Cynthia had attended as a child. He bought a used Chevy convertible and overhauled it to impress Cynthia. Trying to make a new man of himself, he quit drinking and smoking. He took terminal leave from the air force, meaning that he formally ended active duty but would still wear his uniform and draw pay until his accumulated leave ran out in August, at which point he’d become a captain in the Air Force Reserve. He began a low-paying job at the Warner Brothers studios, teaching actors how to ride horses.

What he didn’t have was a proper place to live. Because Los Angeles was teeming with repatriated soldiers, inexpensive housing was all but impossible to find, so Louie was still living with his parents. Cynthia wrote of how badly she wanted a home of her own, but Louie, in some distress, wrote back to explain that he didn’t have the money. The best he could do was to move into the house that Harry Read shared with his mother and promise Cynthia that he’d do whatever he could to earn enough money for a home. He bought an air mattress for Cynthia; he’d sleep on the floor. After POW camp, he said, he didn’t mind sleeping on floors.

The Applewhites’ opposition to the marriage, the pressure to make a good life for Cynthia, and his black memories left Louie taut with stress. He had little appetite. He was emerging from years in which the only constants were violence and loss, and his letters show how much he feared something terrible befalling Cynthia. He clung to the thought of her as if, at any moment, she might be torn from his hands.

He was especially worried about her parents’ views of him. He felt certain that they objected to him personally, finding his Italian ethnicity and middle-class origins repellent. He wrote earnest letters to her father, trying to win him over. When he kept seeing the same car parked by the Reads’ house, he became convinced that it was a detective hired by Cynthia’s father. According to Cynthia’s brother, Ric, his parents had no objection to Louie, only to a hasty marriage. As for the spying, Ric said, such an act would be unlike his easygoing father, and would have made no sense, as Mr. Applewhite liked Louie. Right or wrong, Louie’s suspicions illustrated how sensitive he was to the idea that he was unworthy of Cynthia. Perhaps it wasn’t the Applewhites he was trying to convince.

Six months after returning from Japan, Louie began to feel a familiar pull. It had just been announced that the summer Olympic Games, which hadn’t been held since 1936, were set to return. They’d be held in London in July 1948. Louie’s bad leg felt passably sound, and he finally felt healthy. He began testing himself with long hikes, borrowing a dog for company. The leg felt sturdy, the body strong. July of ’48 was more than two years away. Louie began training.


In May, Cynthia and her parents made a deal. Cynthia could visit Louie, on the condition that they not marry until the fall, in a ceremony at the Applewhite mansion. Cynthia threw her clothes into a suitcase and went to the airport. As she left, her brother Ric felt a pang of worry. He was afraid that his young sister, dashing off to be with a man she hardly knew, might be making an enormous mistake.

At Burbank Airport on May 17, a plane stopped on the tarmac, the stairway unfolded, and Louie bounded up the steps to embrace Cynthia, then squired her home to meet his family. The Zamperinis fell for her, just as Louie had.

Driving away after the visit, Louie sensed that Cynthia was drawing backward. Maybe during the visit there had been a word or a look that hinted at all she didn’t know, or maybe impulsive decisions made in the fog of lovesickness were becoming real. Whatever it was, Louie thought he was losing her. He lost his temper and abruptly said that maybe they should call off the engagement. Cynthia panicked, and they argued, overwrought. When they calmed down, they made a decision.

On Saturday, May 25, the same day that the papers quoted Louie as saying he’d marry Cynthia at the summer’s end, Louie and Cynthia drove to the Church of Our Savior, where the Zamperinis were waiting. He wore his dress uniform; she wore a simple off-white suit. One of Louie’s college buddies walked Cynthia down the aisle, and Louie and Cynthia said their vows. There had been no time to bake a wedding cake, so Pete’s birthday cake, made by Sylvia the day before, did double duty.

Suspecting that Louie’s friends would pull wedding night pranks, the newlyweds stole off to an obscure hotel, and Cynthia called home. Her announcement prompted an explosion. Cynthia hung on the phone all evening, crying, while her mother, who’d gone to great effort to plan a fall wedding, bawled her out. Louie sat by, listening as his bride was excoriated for marrying him, trying in vain to get her to hang up. Eventually he picked up a bottle of champagne, popped it open, drank it dry, and went to sleep by himself.

* Tojo was found in his home that day, sitting in a chair, blood gushing from a self-inflicted bullet wound in his chest. Whispering “Banzai!” and saying he’d rather die than face trial, Tojo was given a pint of American blood plasma, then taken to a hospital. When he recovered, he was housed at Omori, sleeping in Bob Martindale’s bunk. He complained about lice and bedbugs. He was tried, sentenced to death, and, in 1948, hanged. He and 1,068 other convicted war criminals were later honored in Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine, memorializing Japanese who died in the service of the emperor.


Coming Undone

FROM ACROSS THE ROOM, THEY LOOKED LIKE THREE ordinary men. It was an evening in the latter half of 1946, and Louie sat at a table in the Florentine Gardens, a dinner club in Hollywood, with Cynthia nestled near him. Phil and Cecy had come from Indiana for a visit, and Fred Garrett had motored across town to join them for dinner. Phil and Louie were grinning at each other. The last time they’d been together was March of ’44, when Phil was being shipped out of Ofuna and neither man knew if he’d live to see the other again.

The men smiled and talked. Fred, who was soon to become an air traffic controller, had a new prosthetic leg. In a festive mood, he bumped out to the dance floor to show the room that he could still cut a rug. Phil and Cecy were about to move to New Mexico, where Phil would open a plastics business. Louie and Cynthia were glowing from their honeymoon, spent sharing a sleeping bag in Louie’s beloved mountains, where Cynthia, for all her finishing schools, had proven game for getting dirty. Louie was running again, full of big plans, as garrulous and breezy as he’d been before the war. As the men leaned together for photographs, all that they had been through seemed forgotten.

Sometime amid the laughing and conversation, a waiter set a plate in front of Fred. On it, beside the entrée, was a serving of white rice. That was all it took. Fred was suddenly raving, furious, hysterical, berating the waiter and shouting with such force that his face turned purple. Louie tried to calm him, but Fred was beyond consolation. He had come completely undone.

The waiter hurried the rice away and Fred pulled himself together, but the spell was broken. For these men, nothing was ever going to be the same.


At the end of World War II, thousands of former prisoners of the Japanese, known as Pacific POWs, began their postwar lives. Physically, almost every one of them was ravaged. The average army or army air forces Pacific POW had lost sixty-one pounds in captivity, a remarkable statistic given that roughly three-quarters of the men had weighed just 159 pounds or less upon enlistment. Tuberculosis, malaria, dysentery, malnutrition, anemia, eye ailments, and festering wounds were widespread. At one chain of hospitals, doctors found a history of wet beriberi in 77 percent of POWs and dry beriberi in half. Among Canadian POWs, 84 percent had neurologic damage. Respiratory diseases, from infections and exposure to unbreathable air in factories and mines, were rampant. Men had been crippled and disfigured by unset broken bones, and their teeth had been ruined by beatings and years of chewing grit in their food. Others had gone blind from malnutrition. Scores of men were so ill that they had to be carried from camps, and it was common for men to remain hospitalized for many months after repatriation. Some couldn’t be saved.

The physical injuries were lasting, debilitating, and sometimes deadly. A 1954 study found that in the first two postwar years, former Pacific POWs died at almost four times the expected rate for men of their age, and continued to die at unusually high rates for many years. The health repercussions often lasted for decades; a follow-up study found that twenty-two years after the war, former Pacific POWs had hospitalization rates between two and eight times higher than former European POWs for a host of diseases.

As bad as were the physical consequences of captivity, the emotional injuries were much more insidious, widespread, and enduring. In the first six postwar years, one of the most common diagnoses given to hospitalized former Pacific POWs was psychoneurosis. Nearly forty years after the war, more than 85 percent of former Pacific POWs in one study suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), characterized in part by flashbacks, anxiety, and nightmares. And in a 1987 study, eight in ten former Pacific POWs had “psychiatric impairment,” six in ten had anxiety disorders, more than one in four had PTSD, and nearly one in five was depressed. For some, there was only one way out: a 1970 study reported that former Pacific POWs committed suicide 30 percent more often than controls.

All of this illness, physical and emotional, took a shocking toll. Veterans were awarded compensation based on their level of disability, ranging from 10 percent to 100 percent. As of January 1953, one-third of former Pacific POWs were categorized as 50 to 100 percent disabled, nearly eight years after the war’s end.


These statistics translated into tormented, and sometimes ruined, lives. Flashbacks, in which men reexperienced their traumas and were unable to distinguish the illusion from reality, were common. Intense nightmares were almost ubiquitous. Men walked in their sleep, acting out prison camp ordeals, and woke screaming, sobbing, or lashing out. Some slept on their floors because they couldn’t sleep on mattresses, ducked in terror when airliners flew over, or hoarded food. One man had a recurrent hallucination of seeing his dead POW friends walking past. Another was unable to remember the war. Milton McMullen couldn’t stop using Japanese terms, a habit that had been pounded into him. Dr. Alfred Weinstein, who had infected the Bird with dysentery at Mitsushima, was dogged by urges to scavenge in garbage cans.* Huge numbers of men escaped by drinking. In one study of former Pacific POWs, more than a quarter had been diagnosed with alcoholism.

Raymond “Hap” Halloran was a navigator who parachuted into Tokyo after his B-29 was shot down. Once on the ground, Halloran was beaten by a mob of civilians, then captured by Japanese authorities, who tortured him, locked him in a pig cage, and held him in a burning horse stall during the firebombings. They stripped him naked and put him on display at Tokyo’s Ueno Zoo, tied upright in an empty tiger cage so civilians could gawk at his filthy, sore-encrusted body. He was starved so severely that he lost one hundred pounds.

After liberation and eight months in a hospital, Halloran went home to Cincinnati. “I was not the same 19-year-old Raymond whose mother kissed him goodbye that fall morning in 1942,” he wrote. He was intensely nervous and wary of anything approaching him from behind. He couldn’t sleep with his arms covered, fearing that he’d need to fight off attackers. He had horrific nightmares, and would wake running in his yard, shouting for help. He avoided hotels because his screaming upset other guests. More than sixty years after the war, he was still plagued by “poor inventory control,” keeping eight pillows and six clocks in his bedroom, buying far more clothes and supplies than he’d ever need, and stockpiling bulk packages of food. And yet Halloran was fortunate. Of the five survivors of his crew, two drank themselves to death.*

Some former POWs became almost feral with rage. For many men, seeing an Asian person or overhearing a snippet of Japanese left them shaking, weeping, enraged, or lost in flashbacks. One former POW, normally gentle and quiet, spat at every Asian person he saw. At Letterman General Hospital just after the war, four former POWs tried to attack a staffer who was of Japanese ancestry, not knowing that he was an American veteran.

Troubled former POWs found nowhere to turn. McMullen came out of Japan racked by nightmares and so nervous that he was barely able to speak cogently. When he told his story to his family, his father accused him of lying and forbade him to speak of the war. Shattered and deeply depressed, McMullen couldn’t eat, and his weight plunged back down to ninety pounds. He went to a veterans’ hospital, but the doctors simply gave him B12 shots. As he recounted his experiences to a military official, the official picked up a phone and began talking with someone else. After two years, McMullen got his feet under him again, but he would never really recover. Sixty years after VJ Day, his dreams still carried him back to the camps. Recounting his war experiences was so painful that it would leave him off-kilter for weeks.

The Pacific POWs who went home in 1945 were torn-down men. They had an intimate understanding of man’s vast capacity to experience suffering, as well as his equally vast capacity, and hungry willingness, to inflict it. They carried unspeakable memories of torture and humiliation, and an acute sense of vulnerability that attended the knowledge of how readily they could be disarmed and dehumanized. Many felt lonely and isolated, having endured abuses that ordinary people couldn’t understand. Their dignity had been obliterated, replaced with a pervasive sense of shame and worthlessness. And they had the caustic knowledge that no one had come between them and tragedy. Coming home was an experience of profound, perilous aloneness.

For these men, the central struggle of postwar life was to restore their dignity and find a way to see the world as something other than menacing blackness. There was no one right way to peace; every man had to find his own path, according to his own history. Some succeeded. For others, the war would never really end. Some retreated into brooding isolation or lost themselves in escapes. And for some men, years of swallowed rage, terror, and humiliation concentrated into what Holocaust survivor Jean Améry would call “a seething, purifying thirst for revenge.”


The honeymoon in the mountains had been Cynthia’s idea. Louie loved her for being so sporting, and for choosing something so dear to his heart. “You must look about you and remember what the trees + hills, streams + lakes look like,” he wrote to her before their wedding. “… I will see you among them for life.” Drifting off beside Cynthia each night, Louie still saw the Bird lurking in his dreams, but the sergeant hung back as if cowed, or perhaps just waiting. It was the closest thing to peace that Louie had known since Green Hornet had hit the water.

The drive back to Los Angeles carried them from the great wide open to the confines of Harry Read’s mother’s house. Cynthia was uncomfortable living there, and Louie wanted to give her the home she dreamed of. He needed to find a career, but was unprepared to do so. Having left USC a few credits short, he had no college degree, a critical asset in a job market glutted with veterans and former war production workers. Like many elite athletes, he had focused on his sport throughout his school years and had never seriously contemplated life after running. Now nearly thirty, he had no idea what to do for a living.

Cynthia Zamperini on her honeymoon. Courtesy of Louis Zamperini

He made no effort to find a real career or a nine-to-five, salaried job. His celebrity drew people into his orbit, many of them hawking ventures in which he could invest his life insurance payoff, which he’d been allowed to keep. He went to military-surplus sales, bought Quonset huts, and resold them to movie studios. He did the same with iceboxes, then invested in a telephone technology. He turned respectable profits, but each investment quickly ran its course. He did, however, earn a steady enough income to rent an apartment for himself and Cynthia. It was only a tiny place in a low-rent quarter of Hollywood, but Cynthia did her best to make it homey.

At the end of his first day in the new apartment, Louie slid into bed, closed his eyes, and fell into a dream. As always, the Bird was there, but he was no longer hesitant. The sergeant towered over Louie, the belt flicking from his hand, lashing Louie’s face. Every night, he returned, and Louie was helpless once again, unable to flee him or drive him away.

Louie threw himself into training. His long hikes became runs. His strength was coming back, and his dodgy leg gave him no pain. He took it slowly, thinking always of London in ’48. He was aiming for the 1,500 meters, and assured himself that if he couldn’t make it, he’d return to the 5,000, or even the steeplechase. But without extending himself, he began clocking miles in 4:18, just two seconds slower than the winning time of the Zamperini Invitational that he’d seen in March. He was coming all the way back.

But running wasn’t the same. Once he had felt liberated by it; now it felt forced. Running was joyless, but Louie had no other answer to his internal turmoil. He doubled his workouts, and his body answered.

One day, with Cynthia standing by, holding a stopwatch, Louie set off to see how fast he could turn two miles. Early on, he felt a pulse of pain dart across his left ankle, just where it had been injured at Naoetsu. He knew better than to keep pushing, but pushing was all he knew now. As he completed the first mile, barbs of pain were crackling through his ankle. On he went, running for London.

Late in his last lap, there was an abrupt slicing sensation in his ankle. He half-hopped to the line and collapsed. His time was the fastest two-mile run on the Pacific coast in 1946, but it didn’t matter. He was unable to walk for a